David Spear first photographed Butte in the 1970s as an outsider, a Connecticut native by way of California.

While some photographers parachute in and never come back, Spear's fascination never waned.

After he moved to New York City, he visited Butte on assignment for publications like the New York Times Magazine.

After he moved to Pablo and began teaching at Salish Kootenai College, he began coming back even more often to capture the Mining City's people and places in 35-millimeter black-and-white prints.

More than 50 of Spear's photographs, shot from the 1970s through the late 2000s, are on display at the Zootown Arts Community Center this month.

The exhibition is titled "A Timeless Town in Time: Butte, Montana," and indeed it can be difficult to place when a picture was taken.

"The earlier pictures actually blend in with the older pictures, and that's partly because Butte looks like it looks," Spear said. His way of photographing it also hasn't changed.

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From his time studying photography in New York, Spear has maintained an East Coast take on the art form, emphasizing its immersive documentary possibilities.

"If you're going to be doing work like this, you have to be around for a while," he said. "To the point where people are comfortable and they understand your intention and tell them what you're up to."

Early in the project, he was quite shy about shooting portraits, save for some shots of children playing in the streets or buying candy at the stand in the front of the New Deal Bar.

Once he tired of shooting cityscapes, he realized he'd have to get up some nerve and talk to people.

"I would take pictures and go back to the same places and see people," he said. He'd show them prints and see how they were doing.

That's how he was able to shoot intimate portraits of an elderly miner during his morning routine – smoking a cigarette and then wheeling his chair to a nearby bar to read the newspaper and learn who'd been arrested and who'd passed away.

Tistol, he learned, rode a boxcar out from Minnesota in midwinter to work in the mines, and began using a wheelchair after he was hit by a truck.

The ZACC exhibition includes two pictures, separated by decades, of Stevie Faulkner, a mentally disabled man well-known around town for offering shoe-shines.

Spear's sense of Butte naturally evolved over such a long period, boosted along by encounters with locals like Faulkner.

Initially, Spear had a typical outsider's perspective on the tight-knit town – he was mesmerized by the city, but didn't quite understand the culture.

"Ultimately, as I spent more time there I realized it was a small community that was very insulated," he said. "They had had so much stuff happen to them in terms of how the mining business dealt with them, how society dealt with them, that this little circle was a way to take care of each other and protect their culture in a lot of ways," he said.

Faulkner, he said, is a perfect example.

"Even though there were issues of poverty, issues of one culture versus the other culture, it was interesting how they would watch out for each other," he said.

"He had different handicaps he had to overcome, and the community was always there for him," he said.

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Spear studied commercial photography in college in California. After school, he lived in Montana for a couple of years before moving to New York to find work and pay off his loans.

He pursued a two-year program at the International Center of Photography, an institution and museum founded by Cornell Capa, whose brother Robert Capa was killed while photographing the Vietnam War.

Spear was accepted for an internship that allowed him to stay at the center, rent-free.

Access to its exhibitions and darkrooms provided his education in art and documentary photography.

"I was in such a learning curve. Every six weeks, there was a new exhibition. They were bringing in important photographers to do workshops and that kind of thing," he said.

He stayed at ICP for some 18 years as a staff member, and helped start its community outreach program. It teaches photography to underprivileged youths, so they can document their own communities. Spear continued in that vein on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where he's run a similar program called Our Community Record at Two Eagle River School for more than 10 years.

He likes sharing his craft and passion with kids – when he was their age, he took a class just because he needed the credits to graduate.

"It turned out to be something obviously that changed my life and I've been doing it ever since," he said.

At ICP, he noticed some social groups are represented in collections of photography and some aren't, something he hopes to correct with the outreach programs.

"One of the reasons I teach is one of the things I became aware of is there are pretty big gaps in terms of who was represented and who wasn't," he said.

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Spear tells his students that each person's vision is unique.

"One person's going to see it this way, and three other people can go and make the same picture of the same thing and they aren't going to make it in the same way," he said.

He also believes his own emotions about a place inform the final image.

"The way that I see it is going to be based on the way I see it, and also the way I feel about it," he said.

Once he understood Butte as "a very unique American cultural experience," he began too look for images that fit into that vision.

He photographed two men outside a 24-hour grocery store working on a broken-down vehicle.

In the midst of this scene of hardship, he noticed one of the men was wearing a Butte Copper Kings hat.

He shot 4-H shows and football games, and a Santa Claus' annual visit to a low-income housing development and a faith healer practicing his craft.

"This one summer, the sex workers from Nevada came up to Butte of all places and decided they were going to have a gathering. And so the local tent revival people heard about that and so they set up their tent nearby," he said.

He photographed a man in a wheelchair waiting his turn to be healed, and another of the faith healer grasping the man's head in his hands, imploring God for a miracle.

Others are simpler compositions of everyday life, such as an elderly woman making her way up a steep slush-covered street.

"Sometimes photography has these gifts that you get," he said. "You're out there and all of a sudden something happens."

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Spear tried to avoid photographing the big nights that draw eager tourists by the thousands.

"Butte in some ways becomes this place where this odd energy gathers," he said.

Those events remind him of being back in New York riding the subways, which young people used as a place to get wild and loud – an attitude he sees tourists assume when they visit.

"Butte was sometimes people's excuse to get wild and be whoever they thought their alter ego might be," he said.

And so he wouldn't shoot a picture if he got a sense that's what was going on.

Naturally, there are some photographs from St. Patrick's Day celebrations, although they're mostly from the Helsinki Bar in Finn Town, and feature older local residents, not overflowing crowds of tourists.

"They would get together and do their partying the day before, or sometimes afterward," he said. "Just because they didn't want to be rolled off the street."

Often, based on the image alone, it's difficult to tell what year the photographs were taken.

The only cue in one picture of a packed M&M Bar on St. Pat's is the permed hair and mullets that place it firmly in the 1980s.

Several years ago, he showed his work in Butte through the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

He wasn't able to make it to the opening, but he heard one of the kids from his photos showed up, a 40-something gazing back at her teenage self.

"She was amazed to see an image of that transition in time for her," he said.

That picture was on one of 400 to 500 rolls of film he's shot in Butte, which he's culling into a book he'd like to publish soon.

"It turns out that my own project work tends to be long term," he said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment Editor for The Missoulian.